Black America Feels the Sting of Ex-President's Comments

Hillary Clinton spoke about her plans to rejuvenate the economy in an attempt to rise above primary rhetoric Thursday in Greenville, S.C.
By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 25, 2008

For nearly two decades, Yvette Wider, an African American, adored Bill Clinton, once described by a famous black novelist as the nation's first black president.

But now, after Clinton's "fairy tale" remark about Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in New Hampshire and a statement in South Carolina that Obama had put a political "hit job" on him, Wider said she feels she hardly knows the former president. "I was surprised to hear him make a comment like that, because I thought he understood our people better," said Wider, who said she will vote for Obama in Saturday's South Carolina primary. "It made me think he's been playing us all this time."

Wider's sentiments are echoing across black America -- on blogs, Web chats and talk radio, where Clinton is being attacked as never before.

It is a significant turnabout for Clinton, who throughout most of his presidency counted black people as his staunchest supporters. Less than eight years ago, African Americans gave the former president a stratospherically favorable rating -- higher than those for Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

With his attacks on Obama, however, that appears to be changing, causing some strategists and observers to wonder whether Clinton's behavior will alienate black voters whom his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), will need should she win the nomination.

"The tone of some of the things he said just crossed a line," said David Bositis, chief researcher for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black think tank. A 2000 survey by Bositis showed that 91 percent of African American respondents had a favorable view of Clinton. Bositis said he doubts that the number would be as high if the survey were conducted today.

"He thinks he has some free pass in terms of race," Bositis said of Clinton. "I've been watching the polls and Obama's been capturing a larger share of the black vote, and Clinton's like, 'I'm going to get mad.' "

Clinton still has a large share of black supporters. He is a member of the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in his home state. Viewed objectively, his supporters say, the remarks about Obama on behalf of his wife were appropriate in the hard-fought New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries.

Clinton has defended his "fairy tale" remark, noting that it referred to Obama's statement that he has always opposed the Iraq war, and was not about Obama's presidential campaign. He also noted that Obama called his wife the "Senator from Punjab" after she visited India and that Obama's campaign questioned the former president's financial dealings.

In a South Carolina attack ad, the Clinton campaign used part of an Obama quote to suggest that he supported Reagan administration policies as economically sound. But Obama criticized the policies as hurtful later in the statement.

"I never said anything disparaging about him or the reality of his campaign," Clinton said about the fairy tale remark. "It's a brilliant campaign, and this is an example of how brilliant it is. It rests on a false premise. I wasn't trying to be sneering or derisive. I was trying to think of a kinder characterization of his argument."

John Stevenson, a former school superintendent in South Carolina, said the remark upset him but not terribly. "I'm very impressed with Senator Clinton," he said. "I think Bill did an awful lot as president."

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